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Dr. Paul Finkelman, president of Gratz College, stands in front of the Remuh Synagogue in Krakow during his trip to Poland in June.

Gratz President Visits Jewish Poland

A burgeoning relationship between Gratz College and the Polish Cultural Institute promises to open doors to research opportunities for students in Gratz’s Holocaust and Genocide Studies programs.

In June, Gratz President Dr. Paul Finkelman spent eight days on a study tour of Jewish Poland, where he visited synagogues, cemeteries, Jewish community centers, museums and the death camp at Auschwitz. Sponsored by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland, the tour was designed to acquaint Dr. Finkelman with Jewish life in Poland today.

"Gratz College has the world’s only online Ph.D. in Holocaust and Genocide Studies,” Dr. Finkelman said. “When the Polish government found out, I was invited to visit so I could gain a better understanding of what’s going on in Poland in regard to Holocaust studies."

Nearly 80 years have passed since Germany invaded Poland and launched the “Final Solution of the Jewish Question,” ultimately killing more than 90 percent of Poland’s Jews. Although recovery has been slow, today’s Jewish communities are thriving, Dr. Finkelman said.

His tour included a visit to a Jewish community center in Krakow that boasts more than 1,000 members. The center also recently opened the first new Jewish nursery school to operate in Poland since World War II.

“These centers were vibrant,” Dr. Finkelman said. “I went to restaurants with klezmer bands and kosher food. I went into functioning synagogues. I experienced a resurgence of Jewish life in Poland.”

Dr. Finkelman wears a yellow star inside POLIN, the Jewish Museum built on the site of the Warsaw Ghetto. The star is handed out to all museum visitors.

Dr. Finkelman also visited museums and universities, engaging in dialogue with docents and academics interested in partnering with Gratz. He stopped at the Ulma Family Museum of Poles Saving Jews in WWII and the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews, an institution that traces the thousand-year history of Jews in Poland. Two Gratz faculty members, Dr. Joseph Davis and Dr. Michael Steinlauf, were consultants in building the POLIN, erected on the site of the Warsaw Ghetto.

During a stop at the University of Wrocław, Dr. Finkelman met with faculty in the Judaic Studies Program. At the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw, he delved into the Underground Archive of the Warsaw Ghetto, a unique collection of documents that were produced by Jewish scholars in the Ghetto and recovered following the war. During each visit, Dr. Finkelman explored the possibilities for collaboration with Gratz.

“I’m hoping to build cooperative opportunities both for students and scholars at Gratz and their counterparts in Poland who are engaged in Holocaust and genocide studies to access the tremendous resources of our respective institutions,” he said. “There are many creative ways for us to connect, such as through virtual museum tours and access to online archives. I also hope that this trip will lead to Polish students doing graduate studies in Holocaust and genocide with Gratz because they can live in Poland and complete their studies online.”

The trip to Poland was a first for Dr. Finkelman. He returned to Gratz feeling both exhausted and energized.

“This tour stretched the limits of my emotions,” he said. “When you look at Jewish Poland, you learn that this is a complicated story. Poland was, at times, a place that welcomed Jews. At other times, Jews in Poland endured unimaginable horror.”

Partnerships between Gratz and Polish institutions could be mutually beneficial, Dr. Finkelman said. The Holocaust robbed Poland not only of 3.5 million of its Jewish citizens, but also a fundamental part of its national culture. Dr. Finkelman is looking forward to working with incoming director of the Holocaust and Genocide Studies programs, Dr. Monika Rice, who is from Poland and can help develop more collaborations. 

“Poland needs to recover that culture,” Dr. Finkelman said. “Gratz can help by providing the kind of education that will revitalize Poland’s Jewish communities and by sharing knowledge and expertise in efforts to rebuild some of the cultural institutions in Poland.”